Cliques, criticism and now Christmas is cancelled – who’d want to be married to an MP? Westminster’s most influential other halves open up to Katy Balls about the perils of being a political plus-one.
What is it like to be a wife of a politician in modern-day Britain? This is the question Nevena Bridgen set out to answer when she launched The Wives of Westminster (TWOW) blog in May this year. With posts on what it was like to hang out with Boris Johnson during his leadership campaign (‘fascinating’), what shoes to wear to the Conservative Party conference (‘leopard print’) and the intricacies of her morning routine (‘meditation’), the opera singer wife of the Tory MP* Andrew Bridgen hoped to lift the lid on life as a Westminster plus-one.
‘We only hear about the partner of the Prime Minister,’ the mother-of-one tells me. ‘What about all the other political spouses? We experience our own challenges and deal with our partners’ issues, yet no one even knows anything about these women and men. There are so many wives running political offices behind the scenes. A wife is a professional partner just as much as she is a life partner.’
However, the reaction that the blog triggered was not what she had anticipated, not least because some of its shopping columns (tagged Oh My God!) are seriously expensive: not one dress listed costs less than £1,000, while one page recommends purchasing £930 Prada boots and a £2,385 Saint Laurent handbag. These women might have their own unique challenges and issues to deal with, but judging by some of the fashion picks featured on the website, they’re living on a different budget to the majority of the public.
Female MPs were quick to lambast the blog, with Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan labelling it ‘bizarrely outdated’ and Rachel Reeves asking if it was ‘actually for real?’. The male spouse of a Conservative MP labelled it ‘sexist backward-thinking nonsense’, while BBC presenter Emily Maitlis said it sounded ‘like some sort of soft porn film’.
‘I wouldn’t call it criticism but fake news,’ says Nevena, reflecting on the backlash. ‘What Emily Maitlis said was outrageous and defamatory. It’s a lifestyle blog. Some more careerist women, especially female politicians, look down on us as if they have some superior role. They think that the fight for feminism and equality ended with them assuming office.
That’s not true. The role of a modern political wife is to be authentic, to claim her voice, her truth and her story. This is why I started TWOW – I do not want someone else to tell me how it is to be a political wife.’
Like it or loathe it, The Wives of Westminster has started a conversation over what the role of a politician’s partner is these days. It’s a topic that has been the subject of many column inches over the years. There’s the old image of the doting wife who bakes cakes for local events and supports her husband at election count, but with female representation in Parliament at an all-time high (before the election was called, 211 female MPs made up 32 per cent of the House of Commons), there are more men playing the spousal role, too. Who could forget the rock-like presence of Philip May – a ‘proper gentleman’, according to Nevena – as he accompanied the former PM to Prime Minister’s Questions and state visits, even standing at her side at No 10 as she gave her emotional final address? However, some politicians prefer not to even broach the topic, such as Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has said, ‘As a woman in politics, you’re always being defined by the men in your life. I stand in my own right. My partner is phenomenally supportive, but he has his own life.’
In 2019, being a political spouse is complicated. ‘The stereotype of the dutiful political wife doesn’t really fit with modern life,’ says Sarah Vine. One of the most high-profile MP wives, Sarah is a journalist who has been married to Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, for 18 years. ‘Most political spouses have jobs and careers of their own; they shouldn’t have to give any of that up because their other half is an MP.’
Being in a relationship with an MP poses unique challenges: a partner who spends half the week away, two homes – one in the constituency and one in Westminster – long hours and unpredictable events. That family holiday you booked could be called off in lieu of a last-minute Brexit vote or – worse, as has just happened – imminent election. Each partner handles these obstacles differently.
‘It’s individual,’ says Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, the wife of the Conservative MP and defence minister Johnny Mercer, who gave a headline-making interview to TWOW when she said that being an army wife felt safer than being a political spouse. ‘There’s no manual for this sort of job – a political spouse. You either sign up fully or partially or you keep out of it.’ The mother-of-two works for her husband in his constituency office – a decision they made so they would remain close despite his hectic schedule. ‘It’s 24/7 for the actual MP – they can’t switch off. So you can get involved and bounce ideas off each other. As a family you buy into it.
‘I am a 100 per cent “in” spouse. There are a couple of others like me but not everyone wants to be so involved.’ Also in the ‘100 per cent’ group are those who work for their partner in the MP offices, such as Bridget Cash, whose husband Bill employs her as a parliamentary assistant, and Leo Beckett, whose wife, Labour MP Margaret, employs him as office manager.
Other factions among TWOW include the alpha wives – those to whom other spouses turn for advice. Figures such as Susan Williams-Walker (wife of the former Chancellor Philip Hammond) and Justine Lewis (the wife of former Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis) are seen as old hands. When Philip Hammond was Chancellor, Susan would put on receptions for wives and partners in 11 Downing Street. ‘Susan has been a big support behind the scenes to MPs’ other halves,’ says a Westminster insider.
Then there are the high-flying career women. This includes Sarah Vine, Marina Wheeler (a successful barrister and the estranged wife of Boris Johnson) and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the wife of Labour MP Stephen Kinnock. Talk about balancing careers and family – Helle was the Prime Minister of Denmark while Kinnock was a backbench Labour MP. A clip of her berating her husband after he agreed to a live TV interview during the 2017 elections – ‘Why are you doing this now?!’, to which he replied, ‘I don’t know’– went viral.
The high flyers
There are also those who would rather not be identified as a political spouse, believing that it is backward and that they should be known as individuals rather than politicians’ wives. When Nick Clegg was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, his wife Miriam González Durántez – co-chair of an international law firm – challenged the norm by staying away from the campaign trail during the 2010 election. Laura Alvarez, the wife of Jeremy Corbyn, keeps a notably low profile, choosing to stay out of the spotlight during campaigns and events.
As for the male contingent, Nevena is keen to feature more of them on her blog – not least starting with an interview with Mr May. ‘We need to hear more about the challenges of being a partner of a female MP,’ she says. ‘I wanted to feature Sebastian Prentis [the husband of Conservative MP Victoria Prentis], but he was appointed a judge and needs to keep impartiality. He is one fantastic example of a man who is extremely successful and has an equally successful wife – there are many stories like that.’
So what should you do if you suddenly find yourself in the role of political plus-one? The latest addition to the scene is Carrie Symonds, the 31-year-old partner of Boris Johnson. Carrie – or Apples, as she is referred to by friends – has made history as the first live-in girlfriend to inhabit Downing Street, moving into the flat above the Treasury with Boris.
Nevena’s advice to Carrie is to prepare for a tough ride. ‘With respect to her, our role does not come with sympathy. When you date a politician, you gain all his enemies. It’s cold and cruel out there, so you’d better get tough and stand up for yourself.’
Those partners who have put their head above the parapet have often been the subject of negative publicity, as was the case with former Speaker of the Commons John Bercow’s wife Sally when she posed in just a bedsheet in their grace and favour home for a magazine in 2011. Conservative MP Tim Loughton tweeted that she should ‘shut up and cover up as well’. Sarah Vine has been described as a ‘Lady Macbeth figure’ for her influence on her husband after an email leaked during the 2016 leadership contest in which she told him to be his ‘stubborn best’. ‘It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ she says. ‘The Lady Macbeth thing is characteristically lazy – any strong woman who dares to have an opinion is automatically given that label, so it doesn’t really bother me.’
Scrutiny is part and parcel of being a political spouse. ‘I don’t think that anything can prepare you for it,’ says Nevena. ‘The problem is – to sum it up – the haters are going to hate,’ adds Felicity Cornelius-Mercer. ‘If people are determined to be derogatory about politicians and their wives they will find a way.’
It’s understandable, then, that these women often turn to one another for advice. ‘There is a support network there,’ says Felicity. ‘We are all going through the same things – the lows and the joys. It’s the same stuff – pressure on social media or being lobbied at the school gates.’ However, this support tends to be limited to spouses of MPs from the same party, though Nevena is keen to feature the partners of Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians on her blog in the future.
The biggest challenge for a political spouse is the strain the job can have on family life. ‘Frankly, the biggest support I need from Andrew is in raising our son, Blake-Perun,’ says Nevena. ‘There is not much support for the family in the little club of Westminster.’
Sarah Vine says the hardest thing is ‘the demands that politics places on family life, in particular children – who are inevitably affected, especially when stories blow up in the media – and other family members’. Her husband found himself on the front pages earlier this year after it emerged that he had taken cocaine while working as a journalist. ‘Politics is a tough old game and in this social-media age of ours it’s increasingly hard to shield those you love from the sheer brutality of it all.’ Felicity stays away from her husband’s social media altogether – describing it as a ‘cesspit for MPs’.
Nevena hopes that her blog will help to provide support and awareness going forward. ‘Andrew has told me that his colleagues from both parties have said: “Your wife has a great website”,’ she says. ‘Last summer, I was at the birthday party of Jacob Rees-Mogg, and many of the guests told me they read The Wives of Westminster and praised how well I had navigated all the media coverage. People notice – and they were very encouraging.
‘There are many spouses and partners I still have to meet and I think that this project is a good opportunity to connect. Some of them are afraid of political attacks if they come out and talk on their own. That I see as the biggest problem, and I would love to change that.’
If Nevena gets her way, far from being silenced by critics, the wives of Westminster will soon be as loud a force as their partners.
To read Nevena’s blog, visit thewivesofwestminster.com
*following the dissolution of Parliament last Wednesday, every seat in the House of Commons is now vacant until the election